REM New adventures in Hi-Fi (Deluxe Reissue) | MCU Times

REM New adventures in Hi-Fi (Deluxe Reissue)

REM in 1996: Peter Buck, Bill Berry, Mike Mills and Michael Stipe

REM in 1996: Peter Buck, Bill Berry, Mike Mills and Michael Stipe
Photo: Chris Bilheimer

Say You’re REM: By the mid – 1990s, you’ve become one of the biggest rock bands in the world. What’s your next move? Do you lean into star status and team up with a great producer? To retreat from the limelight and then break up? Or do something ambitious, unusual and completely unexpected?

If you guessed the latter, you would be right. In a move that now feels very distinctive in hindsight, REM decided to write and record most of a new album while on the extensive world tour, supporting 1995’s global smash. Monster, breaking the monotony in concrete arenas and daily sound checks with songwriting. The resulting album, New adventures in Hi-Fi—newly released with an accompanying album of bonus material from the timeis a batch of scribbled postcards from the road telling of outbursts of grief, alienation, inspiration and optimism.

As one might expect, New adventures in Hi-Fi is the most eclectic REM album. While “Bittersweet Me” can be instantly recognized as a REM song – crediting Peter Buck’s melancholy guitar arpeggios – and “So Fast, So Numb” is a furious rocker, other moments are surprising. “Leave” is dominated by urgent, harsh synth that circles like a screaming siren; “Be Mine” is lovely, lo-fi fuzz-rock; “Low Desert” is a bluesy, dusty roadhouse blues song. And “E-Bow The Letter,” a meditative letter with the grim invocations of guest Patti Smith, is its own genre that draws on gentle guitar jungle, electric sitar and mellotron for chamber music-inspired beauty.

Although the long-lasting Monster the tour was marked by unforeseen medical problems, including drummer Bill Berry, who had a brain aneurysm on stage during a show, the album itself does not show these cracks. Instead, Stipe’s lyrics are introverted and meticulous, filled with strikingly abstract images (“Aluminum, tastes like fear / adrenaline, it draws us close,” from “E-Bow the Letter”) and songs that struggle with identity, geography and that find a place in the world.

“New Test Leper” is a deeply moving song that describes a sincere guest being shut down while trying to put their authentic selves forward in a tabloid talk show; “How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us” addresses the oblique historical turmoil that helped shape the country’s direction; and “Electrolite” uses Los Angeles in the background to ponder the passage and endings of time.

Unlike other deluxe REM re-releases, the second disc does not have an era-appropriate live show; the band did not actually tour behind New adventures in Hi-Fi. Instead, in line with the obligation to document the life of the album, the bonus tracks include live tracks from the 1995s. Monster trip – where New adventures came together – as well as b-pages, alternate versions and covers. For die-hards, it’s a plus to have these extra tracks in one place instead of scattered across CD singles or long-lost downloaded MP3s; for the unknown, these extras help to deepen the contours of the main album.

Rawer takes on the sinister “Undertow”, and the rugged “Departure” illustrates what a great live band REM was in the mid-1990s, while shedding light on New adventures in Hi-Fi‘s immediacy. Organ-heavy live versions of “The Wake-Up Bomb” and “Binky The Doormat” possess free-running, glitter-glam hearts and act as a bridge from Monster to the new era. And a delicate alternative version of “Leave” removes the siren-like keyboard and replaces it with a moody, percussion-spackled ambient background. The gloomy mood underscores the song’s deep longing and New adventures in Hi-Fi‘s crisp gripping.

The bonus covers, which are due to the darker shades from the 1992s Automatically to the people than other eras, is even more exciting. A casual, crazy “Wall of Death” – originally found on the Richard Thompson tribute stone Beat The Retreat-plus a laid-back, faithful spin through Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman” illuminates the band’s ease of slipping into the folk and country realm. A cover of Athens songwriter Vic Chesnutt’s “Sponge”, meanwhile, deserves a brighter spotlight: It strikes at the desolation of Chesnutt’s original – the title refers to “the world” as a mushroom, as if someone is being weighed down by life – and adds thunderously, stormy guitars for extra tumult.

Although the band was not aware of it at the time, New adventures in Hi-Fi meant the end of a chapter. Bill Berry left the band a year later, which changed REM’s approach to life and irrevocably changed its creative process. In America, musical trends changed, and that kind of enigmatic, offbeat rock music continued. New adventures in Hi-Fi fell into disfavor for nü metal and later the garage rock revival.

Yet New adventures in Hi-Fi is a farewell written without the burden of an ending. The album does not dwell on the past; it just deals with how people move forward, and embraces the next when major life changes occur. A fascinating chronicle, New adventures is finally – and rightly so – taking its place as one of REM’s best, most consistent works.

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